Corrections or additions?

This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the May 4, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Dare to Dream, but to Invest? Scam or Scheme?

by Bart Jackson

The whole thing really felt like a scam. The promise of a free lunch

at Princeton’s elegant Peacock Inn had lured me to taste a 90-minute

lecture on, trite as it sounds, "How You Can Make Money On the

Internet." The envelope, which had unsolicited found its way into my

mailbox, contained photos and earnings figures of just-plain-folks

customers, who, by following the unnamed firm’s simple, easy-to-learn

method were now earning, oh believe it friends, an extra $250,000

annually, or $15,000 a month, and others even a paltry few thousand a

month. (Small print: "these results not typical." Don’t try this at

home.)

No exact company title was given, just references to the Internet

Marketing Conference. Taking corporate president Brandon Lewis up on

his offer, I phoned the phone number listed and listened to a recorded

series of testimonials from these honest, bootstrapping American Joes

and Janes who followed the quick-rich path of the seminar and

Internetted their way into the American dream. I must admit I was

pumped after hearing the success stories of folks much dumber but

undeniably much richer than I. Unsure as to whether to don my sneering

cynic’s or mild skeptic’s hat, I decided to attend.

With a greater appetite for food than future cash, (not to mention the

absolutely free personal organizer gift,) I headed out for the Holiday

Inn on Route 1. Oh yes, at the last minute, the venue had changed from

the Peacock to the Holiday, diminishing my culinary hopes. So now I

sat before an aggressively jovial, slick Andy Sherman, who gushed

sincerity and all the right terms. Sherman knew all the trial lawyers’

tricks and used them effectively. He never asked a question to which

he had not cleared the way for an obvious answer. "How many people

here would like to make more money?" "How many would like to be

earning cash for doing what they love?"

Seamlessly he blended a series of success examples in with a series of

questions to which this audience of potential entrepreneurs invariably

found ourselves saying "Yes." PowerPoint displays flew in quick

succession, laced with constant stops for group involvement.

Then, in keeping with the carnival atmosphere, he pulled an old

huckster’s trick and we all watched like rubes. "Who here in this room

is ready and willing to stand up and take control of his own business

future?" Hands flew up. "Good. Okay, Bart. Stand up and look under

your chair." Doing as I was bid, I untapped the crisp $10 bill Sherman

must have placed under my chair, and only my chair, before we arrived.

The lesson to be learned here, I suppose, is not to sit on your

assets. Still, I couldn’t help wondering how he had pulled off that

trick.

The atmosphere in the room was one of slightly succumbing skepticism.

The 40-person group seemed a fairly random mix: Six blacks, four

Indian and Asian, a few Hispanics, and I heard definitely two Russian

accents. One demographic stood out however. The majority appeared to

be recent retirement age: ideal for beginning that second career.

Most of the folks with whom I chatted had at least average Internet

dealing experience. Frank, a 60ish Skillman retired consultant, had

sold a few things on eBay and had a son who sold NASCAR parts on line,

but both evidently needed more web effect. Beverly, a retired school

secretary also from Skillman, simply sought a novel and fun way to

pick up some extra money.

Several came with actual websites up, running, but not overly

successful. Kerry (www.kerryzone.com) had established a site pedaling

everything from antiques to E-books and vitamins. He had energy and

skill, but he needed more hits. Frank, No. two had run and sold a

successful site visited by fisherfolk wanting to learn where they were

biting, but now he wanted to move into more exciting ventures. These

people were not suckers. A couple I had talked with had endured the

droning time-share sales pitches to get a free Vegas weekend.

But when it came to parting with their own money, these folks were

indeed careful and skeptical. They were seeking some hard evidence

amid the froth. And gradually, unmistakably, Sherman began to supply

it.

The goal of this 90-minute seminar was, as Sherman stated up front, to

get you to attend the all day workshop given by StoresOnline (the

company’s real name. StoresOnline Inc. I learned in subsequent

material, is located in Orem, Utah, and owned by publicly traded

iMergent Inc. This workshop would arm entrepreneurs with all the tools

they needed to start, run, and advertise their own business. This

short seminar was a teaser, Sherman frankly admitted, but he began to

unfold many of the nuts and bolts methods of Internet selling success.

Diligently, I sat and took notes. From chats with folks like Frank and

Kerry sitting around me, I had already learned that simply having a

site does not guarantee hits. Sherman defined the Alexa rating. This

Internet popularity rating, done by Amazon.com, ranks the top one

percent of websites (all 10 million of them) in order of how many hits

they receive. To even get on this list cries out that your site has

made it. But it seemed as if all of www.StoresOnLine graduate clients

were listed. Flashing a series of overwhelmingly average looking

individuals on screen, Sherman gave the history, and stats of each –

and the very specific tools they employed to make their site and

product stand out.

Diana and Mike, previously employed in general labor and mowing lawns,

became Internet sellers of a series of maps and guide books. Employing

regionalized search engines, they sought out a clientele within 50

miles of their home to which they could deliver goods within two

hours. This interesting niche, allowed by regional tooling, has

created one of StoresOnline’s greatest success stories.

StoresOnline client Steve Knowlan juiced his website up into a 992,692

Alexa rating via an integrated newsletter campaign. Using an

autoresponder system and a fact-filled newsletter that changed every

three weeks, he built customer loyalty for his line of hockey

memorabilia.

By means of bid marketing, college student Brian Castleman jumped his

lackluster boot marketing site to an 392,511 Alexa rating and made

$120,000, ’tis claimed, from the August seminar to Christmas. Target

marketing via bid-ranked search engines is similar to, but not exactly

like the old pay-per-click plans, where the website owner pays a

supplier for each click. The trick here is to determine how many hits

turn into a sale and how much a single hit is worth.

All the information began to build. Sherman kept dropping hints on

list ranking: getting your website to come up tops on the search

engine list. I already knew the Google statistic that under 11 percent

of its users ever looked beyond the first page on a given search. By

either linking or wording my site would have to be on that first page.

I felt enticed. Forget the testimonials – this guy’s giving some truly

solid information. This writer indeed did have a certain service he

wanted to market on the Internet. Still my skeptic’s hat was flashing

its warning sign. What was SeminarsOnline getting out of this? Slowly,

more through inference than Sherman’s implication, I got the message.

SeminarsOnline is a website host. The firm designs, publishes, and

maintains websites. It also can connect clients with services of

ordering and fulfillment. It can set you up with the total E-commerce

package. When an order comes in, you don’t have to call the

manufacturer or a warehouse, it’s taken care of. You don’t have to

worry about E-mailing an anvil to Kansas; various agencies will handle

the drop shipping for you.

The whole concept makes enormous niche-marketing sense. SeminarsOnline

swims in the cutthroat seas of hosters who create and maintain

business websites. According to the National Business Index, New

Jersey alone lists 481 established website designer/hosters. This

doesn’t even measure the untold thousands of basement-bound

individuals who provide hosting services.

So the seminars took a new tack: Instead of trying to sell new sites

for existing businesses, most of whom already have sites, why not

create new businesses and deliver websites to those newly in need.

The idea is exciting and fun. Successful online traders, like Sherman

who have made it, now return to launch new hopefuls onto online

careers. The problem comes that building all this semi-captive

clientele costs. All those seminar mailings, free lunches, and

speakers are expenses unincurred by the hungry folk offering thriftier

sites. SeminarsOnline notes that its normal installation for a site is

$2,500, with an first-year maintenance fee of $2,500. (If you attend

the daylong seminar, you can waive the initial set up fee and in the

second year, site maintenance drops to "pennies a day.")

While such costs may have been competitive five years ago, today they

stand out as markedly upper end. Often service providers such as

Comcast offer customers a free website and set up. Web maintenance,

driven downward by the huge supply of hosters, can cost as little as

$5 to $25 a month, from a small but established firm like

www.GoodGeeks.com. The $25 fee affords site owners 1,000 megabytes and

unlimited links – large enough to handle even an Alexa-rated business.

A nice basic web design can be purchased for $200 to $300.

A second downside is that, if the PowerPoint presentation is in any

way representative, StoresOnline websites are fairly pedestrian and

display an unmistakable sameness about them. This may or not be as

important as it seems. As everyone who deals with Internet sales keeps

chanting, the looks of your site are less important than getting a

high placement on Google that leads to high hits. This entails, among

other things, a certain formula of headline and copy content verbiage

that must work well within the provider’s framework.

At last, the lecture came to an end, Sherman had us all give ourselves

a round of applause and the lunch was delivered. I hefted my thick,

tasty turkey sandwich off the paper plate and began chewing on the

possibilities. Sherman had cleverly gotten us all salivating for the

two-week-hence seminar; then sticker-shocked us with "the regular

price" of $2,500, then rebuilt our financial fantasies with a

this-time-only discount price of $30. "Isn’t your entire future worth

one day’s investment?" he was asking.

I pondered. I was already marketing some of my services on the side

and every client was loving it. This certainly might be the way to get

the word out with the minimal life distraction. On the other hand, did

I want my days to become devoured by the mad pursuit of money? There

was no obligation – just some intriguing knowledge (and another deli

lunch.) I’m such a technodufus, but truly, my mother raised a smarter

son than these "successful marketers" touted in the lecture.

Finally, wolfing the last of my coleslaw from the paper cup, I turned

to Kerry, who was also eying the sign up table. With the $10 I had

already found under my chair, it would cost $20 for the day long

seminar. I stood up and said, "Aw what, the heck, Kerry, Let’s do it.

It may be fun."

P.S. Look for www.BartSellsAll.com coming soon on the next Alexa

rating list – and on the driver’s side door of my stretch limo.

Editor’s note: Jackson did go to the second session. He estimates

that, of the 200 people there, probably 10 percent purchased the

company’s service. He did not.


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